Tri-Sector Athletes in Education: Let's Not Forget About Social Justice

Since publishing my last blogpost "What will Transform Schools: Tri-Sector Athletes in Education", I have received a great deal of positive feedback from readers, with some now self-defining as "tri-sector educators" and others reinforcing the need for more expansive and inclusive leadership to reform education, from kindergarten to college. I wanted the piece I wrote to be a call to action to people who want to remake institutions and impact the lives of others.

I also intentionally titled the article "what" rather than the "who" will transform schools to be precise in highlighting that individual leaders can be powerful agents of change and are necessary but not sufficient to make the changes we want to see in education. "The work of leaders", as Harvard Business School professor, Linda Hill states, "is to set the stage, not to perform on it."

The idea that a school principal or executive director or community leader can "go it alone", relying on the force of charisma, to sustain the change needed to educate generations of young people and families in a climate of divestment in poor and working class communities, I argue, is passé and, frankly, never existed.

Further, the concept of a benevolent CEO of a transnational corporation or a compassionate locally elected official has the influence (or sustained interest over time) to reform education, without perhaps changing their own practices and public policy that historically gave rise to conditions in communities, is a fiction.

Leveraging diverse individuals, institutions and communities to make a difference in k-12 schools, in community colleges, and other educational environments where there are young people in need of support is required in the 21st century. New approaches to solving complex problems require, what Prof. Hill posits as, "the collective genius of collective problem solving".

However, working with multiple stakeholders to solve problems can also be a messy process, with cycles of euphoric highs and disappointing lows, with failures that can strain leaders and relationships, personal and professional. For instance, when I talk to leaders who are engaged in collective impact work they often share the difficulty in defining outcomes that matter, finding funders who are invested in the work for the longer term, and building trust over time with multiple stakeholders.

The tri-sector athlete in education must be a marathon runner. Your real task is to help make sense out of a confluence of visions, leadership styles, outrage, passion, fear, and game plans to transform education. Of course, active listening skills, an elevated EQ, patience, along with other attributes of transformative leaders, are a must.

Yet another requirement that tends to be downplayed is a focus on social justice. Social justice is both a critique (and there are many versions) as well as an ethical and moral compass guiding tri-sector work, a critique of an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, opportunities and resources in society and an active working toward a more equitable system. Without a focus on social justice in tri-sector work in education, we are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

As an illustration, books on leadership in education are abundant. However, many tend to be void of or vague with any reference to social justice. I encourage my graduate students in the Educational Leadership program at the Steinhardt School at New York University, those studying to become executive directors of educational organizations or principals in schools, to read Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter for a Birmingham Jail".

This letter Dr. King wrote in April 1963 to white clergy while he was in jail for civil disobedience is important as an historical document from a true "tri-sector leader" who leveraged government, civic and religious organizations, businesses and secondary and post-secondary institutions to push for the abolition of Jim Crow and push for universal equality. It also outlines, with clarity, the steps leadership must take to bring about social change.

King highlighted that "direct action" is the final stage of the work of leaders, that everything from collection of facts (research) to negotiation with diverse (and even opposing) leadership to self-purification (self-care) is needed. And when others in the work experienced moral panic or redirected their efforts away from the larger goal, a focus on social justice became a re-unifying and inspiring theme for actors to rally around. Although Dr. King and leaders from all walks of life who comprised what he termed the "beloved community" were facing overt manifestations of inequality under Jim Crow, the lessons are still relevant today.

Now, some may even assert after reading this that invoking Dr. King as an example of tri-sector athlete either reduces his legacy or makes it more out of reach to the average leader. But as Dr. King stated, "all have the ability to be great, because all have the ability to serve."